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Death of teen found in Inner Harbor highlights gap in mental health services for homeless Baltimore youth

Lonnie Walker, director of JOY Baltimore, a drop in center for homeless youth and young adults, talks about Jhevan Khochiese Alexander Malone who died in July.

On a July morning, Jhevan Malone dropped off a suitcase full of his belongings — some clothes, his birth certificate and a notebook — at a youth development center in Baltimore.

Later that day, the 19-year-old’s body was found in the Inner Harbor after police responded to a call for a young man who jumped in the water.

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At a memorial service for the homeless teen, friends and family talked about Malone’s humor and charisma, how he was always wearing earphones, writing song lyrics or asking you to check out his Soundcloud. But they also knew Malone was suffering from mental health problems.

His friend Lenny Leonard shared stories about Malone’s love for music and how the two planned to collaborate. Then he paused and his eyes fell to the ground, “I’m very sad he couldn’t find the help he needed.”

For people under 25 experiencing homelessness like Malone, mental health services are scarce, especially when they’re in crisis, said Jerrianne Anthony, director of the Baltimore Department of Homeless Services.

“That is a gap that is existing in our system," Anthony said.

Last year, Baltimore was home to roughly 1,500 homeless young people, more than a third of Maryland’s homeless youth population, according to a state study. And researchers who oversaw the homeless youth count said the number was likely lower than reality.

The same report found that mental health resources were the most sought-after service for homeless young people, next to food and shelter. Mental health services can be crucial for a young person to break out of the cycle of homelessness, Anthony said.

For Malone, that cycle began after he aged out of the foster care system in Illinois, and moved to Baltimore County to live with a relative, according to his younger sister, Adia Love. That relative had difficulty paying the bills and lost their home two months after Malone moved in, she said. For the most part, Malone couch-surfed around Baltimore but sometimes stayed at Loving Arms, a youth emergency shelter. All the while, he attended Baltimore City Community College.

Malone loved video games, Alfredo pasta and music, according to his friends and family. He was goofy and always cracking jokes, said his older sister, Gigi Malone. He was a college student and had a part-time sales job.

Lonnie Walker had became a mentor to Malone in his job as director of JOY Baltimore, a drop-in center for homeless youth. But it was also known to Walker and his family that Malone was suffering from mental health problems.

“I lost all my hope that I had when I was a boy when I dreamt bigger than heaven / And all I developed was feelings of sadness, anger, bipolar and depression,” Malone sang in his song, “Winter.”

When he no longer could live with his relative, Malone, like many young adults experiencing homelessness, was far more concerned with finding a place to sleep each night than seeking care, Walker said. Other times, Malone couldn’t afford transportation to get to counseling services, according to Walker.

While mental health services do exist for people experiencing homelessness, they’re not always easy to access.

For example, the nonprofit Baltimore Crisis Response Inc. runs a hotline that receives on average eight calls a day, according to executive director Edgar Wiggins. But because of limited funding, its mobile crisis team isn’t available from midnight to 7 a.m.

Some community-based organizations in the city offer appointment-based and drop-in hours for counseling to help people before they reach a crisis. But Blair Franklin, executive director at Yes Drop-In Center, said connecting youth to the right services is still hard.

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“There’s some places with really long wait times or only group counseling," Franklin said.

In 2013, YES drop-in center partnered with Healthcare for the Homeless to bring a behavioral health therapist directly to its young people. Franklin said roughly 40 to 50 people make an appointment with the on-site counselor each year.

“That paints a picture of people who engaged in some way, but it doesn’t paint a picture of the need,” Franklin said.

Another barrier to receiving help is trust. “Many folks are hesitant and resistant … because of histories of being mistreated and not well served,” Franklin said.

Some help is on the way. Behavioral Health Systems Baltimore, a nonprofit in the city, is talking with city, state and hospital partners to open the city’s first 24-hour urgent care center for people experiencing a mental health crisis, according to spokeswoman Adrienne Breidenstine. And the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently gave $3.7 million to Baltimore to help end youth homelessness in Baltmore.

For Anthony, the director of the city’s department of homelessness, mental health aid is a fundamental principle in the department’s plans for 2020. From outreach to permanent housing, Anthony said she wants mental health services offered at every “touchpoint”:

“The tragedy of Jhevan’s death compels us to work collaboratively to examine gaps in our existing system to build more responsive, effective, preventive systems of support to aid young adults experiencing homelessness,” Anthony said.

A month since Jhevan died, the question “What could I have done?" still haunts Walker every day. But Walker also asks himself: “What could we do differently now?” Continuing his work with homeless young people, Walker said, he never wants to go through this loss again.

Malone had clear and detailed plans: He was going to move to Atlanta for his music career and name his first child after his song “Winter.” On the program card handed out at Malone’s memorial service, the cover states: Say his name.

“He wasn’t just a homeless young man," Walker said. “Say his name: Jhevan Khochiese Alexander Malone."

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